Updated, 12:30 p.m.
The signs indicate bikes “may use full lane” and “13th Street Bikeway Northbound Bicycle Route.” Yet for some residents of South Philadelphia, the posts signal a neighborhood crisis.
“You’re changing residential streets to be bike lanes,” said Girard Estate resident Jody Della Barba, “without telling the neighbors.”
The signs are part of a long-planned, federally funded effort to turn 13th and 15th streets between Washington and Oregon avenues into Neighborhood Bikeways and move bicycle traffic away from Broad Street. In addition to the signs, the money goes to new crosswalks and “super sharrows,” which are green insignias of a bicycle that aren’t a bike lane but are intended to attract cyclists and remind drivers to be aware of them. Couple those additions with a lawsuit asking the PPA and Philadelphia Police to enforce median parking restrictions on South Broad — brought forth by “pedestrian, bicyclist, public transit user and motorist” Jacob Liefer — and people say tensions between cyclists and their opponents are higher than usual in an area infamous for its biker-driver tiffs.
“I feel like once I cross Washington Avenue,” said cyclist Kate Mundie, who lives in South Philly east of Broad, “there’s this level of anger that just comes out.”
On the anti-cyclist side, Della Barba has stirred up much of the anger. The Facebook group Taking Our South Philadelphia Streets Back shared a note of hers last week, imploring residents and police to be watchful of any cyclists breaking rules. It read, “Since the goal of the Philadelphia biking world is to take over the streets of South Philly, we are asking local police to step up enforcement of the laws they break 24/7.” Her problem, she said, is cyclists who pass through stop signs and red lights, which is illegal, and who take up the full street, which is legal.
These messages circulate on social media from time to time but not usually to the degree of hers. Della Barba’s words were shared about 250 times and received about the same number of comments. Many of them supported Della Barba, like Kelly Williams, who wrote, “If I need to abide by safety rules, they should too, we share the road therefore we must share the same RULES!.”
Della Barba isn’t your average South Philadelphian. She was Frank Rizzo’s secretary and is the leader of the Girard Estate Area Residents (so maybe she is your average South Philadelphian).
She wants bikes to be registered and cyclists to have liability insurance. Licensing programs have been enacted in Los Angeles, Detroit and Honolulu with differing success. It would take changes to local or state laws for Philadelphia to mandate bike registration.
Della Barba said she has spoken with state representatives and senators about it.
“How do you talk to the police,” she said, “if you can’t identify the culprit?…We’re inundated now with bicycles.”
South Philly likely does have more cyclists than typical neighborhoods in Philadelphia, at least in terms of bicycle commuters. Six of Philly’s top 10 census tracts for bicycle commuters are in South Philly. Just 2 percent of city residents bike to work. In these tracts, which are in the vicinity of 13th and 15th streets, closer to 12 to 15 percent of commuters are cyclists.
The designated bikeways for 13th and 15th streets are considered a major step for changing Philadelphia’s infrastructure to better suit the needs of cyclists. When the federal funds were first secured in 2014, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia wrote that the super sharrows and signs would lead to a “culture change,” with cars likely opting to use Broad Street instead.
“The infrastructure and environment on 13th and 15th Streets, to date, have encouraged a driving culture less hospitable to bicyclists and pedestrians,” read a post on the Coalition’s website. “These Neighborhood Bikeways are Philadelphia’s first attempt at changing that culture.”
John Furey, leader of the Broad Street West Civic Association, has lived in South Philadelphia for 40 years and has “seen a lot of change.” He favors the licensing and registration of bikes and wants safer roads.
“I wish it was a simple answer,” Furey said. “It’s a little tense. If the bikers show they’re serious and start paying their own way and adhering to traffic regulations, that would be welcome.”
Third District Police Capt. Frank Milillo said his South Philly coverage area hasn’t heard of any major problems on 13th Street since the new signs went in. He said the department regularly gets complaints from drivers who don’t understand cyclists can take up the full lane the same way cars can. Yet he also sympathizes.
“Common sense,” Milillo said, “would tell you if you’re a cyclist to move to the side.”
But Pennsylvania law requires 4 feet of space for motorists to safely pass bikes. That’s impossible on most city streets, especially on narrow South Philly roads.
Milillo said police are taking seriously complaints from both cyclists and motorists, and have especially been targeting teenagers biking the wrong way in South Philly. Requests from neighbors have had no discernible effect on ticketing bikers: This year, there’s been one citation against a cyclist in South Philly and there was just one other the previous two years combined.
At times, South Philly cyclist Travis Southard said he goes through red lights and stop signs, explaining that it’s helpful for keeping momentum in places where there’s little to no traffic, and for staying warm in the winter months. He also regularly takes up the full lane when he commutes home on 23rd Street, dealing with the occasional loud driver. And lately some of their complaints have increased.
“I think there’s a lot more visibility on it now, as the 13th and 15th bikeway signs are popping up and as we’re getting back to school and seeing more people, like students,” Southard said. “It’s the season. It’s the season for bikelash essentially.”
He sees no reason why motorists should be hostile toward the changes on 13th and 15th streets.
“They have a bajillion other roads to choose from,” Southard said. “They can choose Broad Street and 17th and 12th. It’s not ridiculous that cyclists want a southbound street not next to the Delaware.”
Southard was surprised to learn he lives in the same neighborhood as Della Barba. He even attends trivia night at a bar close to Della Barba’s house.
On Wednesday night, he had plans to walk to the bar. Some of his friends bike there, however, and have felt the wrath of the neighborhood.
“My girlfriend parked there last time,” Southard said, “and her seat got stolen.”